There are few things as perennially associated with childhood as the imaginary friend. An invisible companion, seen only through the eyes of a (typically) lonely kid desperate for someone to connect with. While the concept has been explored in film before, from Drop Dead Fred to Fight Club, Daniel Isn't Real reworks it into a twisted, nightmarish vision.
At a midnight screening during SXSW over the weekend, the Spectrevision production unfolded as a dark vision of what happens when someone's imaginary friend returns, quite unhappy after having been ignored for the last dozen years.
While the film focuses on Luke (Miles Robbins), the quintessentially lonely kid, it's based on the novel In This Way I Was Saved, which focuses on Daniel, the imaginary friend. Author Brian DeLeeuw, who co-wrote the script with director Adam Egypt Mortimer, explained how he had to rework the story for the screen.
"The 'I' in the story is Daniel," DeLeeuw told the crowd, which included SYFY WIRE. "He's saved by Luke bringing him back. That obviously wasn't going to work for the movie."
By changing the premise of the story, the title needed to be reworked as well. Eventually landing on Daniel Isn't Real, Mortimer went through a list of ideas they'd thrown around over the years.
"A long time ago we were going to call it Split," he said, which earned a laugh from the crowd, having since been taken by M. Night Shyamalan. "Our working title for a long time was Snuggles With Midnight," a reference to an unpleasant moment in the book that was also changed for the big screen.
What Daniel Isn't Real, however, calls into question the true nature of the existence of Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger), whose insidious influence has a complicated effect on Luke. Sure, it helps him become personable, but Daniel's relentless pursuit of his agenda steadily pushes him further and further to the brink.
To help capture the uncertainty of Daniel's existence on screen, Mortimer would employ an unconventional rehearsal technique.
"We rehearsed a lot of the scenes with me, then a lot of times where [they] said, 'Patrick, f*ck off and go get some coffee,' and they'd do the same scene without me," Schwarzenegger said.
"I had an easy job because I was allowed to see him," added Robbins, who joked that, as the lead, he had "the easiest job in the whole film."